Top 10 List for 2011

Posted on December 28, 2011 at 6:02 pm

There were more sequels and remakes released in 2011 than ever before, but that wasn’t the only reason for feeling a sense of deja vu over the past 12 months.  This year we had two films with almost identical plots about a couple who decide to to have a relationship that is just sex, no emotion.  Spoiler alert: in both “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” they end up falling in love.  We had two films about sad little boys who lost their fathers trying to solve a mystery involving a key.  Both were based on acclaimed novels and both were excellent: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Hugo.”  We had two films about the parents of teenage boys who shot and killed students in their high schools.  I preferred “Beautiful Boy” with Michael Sheen and Maria Bello but most of the critics liked “We Need to Talk About Kevin” with John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton.  And we had six films featuring superb and very different performances from an actress who was unknown in 2010, Jessica Chastain.  Michael Fassbender, who made an impression as a British officer in Inglourious Basterds, had a stunning array of roles this year in “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Shame,” and “A Dangerous Method.”

But, as there are every year, there are movies so fresh and surprising that they seem to re-invent the very idea of movies.  I begin each year looking forward to what’s ahead but most of all looking forward to knowing that 365 days later there will be people and images and dialog and ideas so vital and engaging I can hardly remember what it was like before I knew them.  I would not have expected Woody Allen’s new movie to be surprisingly good or Pixar’s and Michel Gondry’s would be disappointing.  It was good to know that Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese can still be relied on.  I had high hopes that were met or exceeded for films like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” and “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.”  For the first time, four master film-makers worked in 3D.  Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders showed us that a gifted filmmaker can make 3D into more than a stunt — they used it as another way to enhance the story.  And if you had told me that my top 10 list this year would be led by movie that was not only black and white but silent, I would have looked around for a time machine.

Here’s my tribute to the best of 2011, all close to being tied for first place.  And I’m already looking forward to being surprised by the movies in 2012.


1. “The Artist”  While Hollywood was abandoning a century of film to move to digital filmmaking, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius took us back to another time of technological change.  It recalled themes in classic films “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Star is Born” with such affection, charm, and heart that it left us asking why we ever thought sound and color were anything but superfluous.

2. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” A boy who loses his father in 9/11 looks for answers in this touching story based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Viola Davis and Max von Sydow are heartbreaking as two of the people he meets on his search.

3. “Hugo” Another fatherless boy and other search involving a key — Martin Scorsese’s first 3D movie and first movie for families is an immersive, rapturous valentine to the movies.

4. “Beginners” Christopher Plummer plays a man who comes out at age 72 and Ewan McGregor plays his son in this wry, wise story based on writer/director Mike Mills’ own life.

5. “Win Win” Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) wrote and directed this story of a struggling lawyer who takes advantage of a client with dementia and ends up taking care of the client’s grandson, a gifted wrestler.

6. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” The Chauvet cave has paintings of astonishing skill and beauty made by humans 30,000 years ago, but so fragile that the only way for us to see them now is in this 3D documentary from Werner Herzog.

7. “Super 8” Writer/director J.J. Abrams pays tribute to his mentor, producer Steven Spielberg, with the third film on my list that is a love letter to the movies.  In the 1970’s, a group of middle schoolers make a zombie movie on Super 8 film and accidentally get footage of a mysterious train crash.  While they wait for the film to be developed, they investigate.

8. “Margin Call” It all takes place on one tense night when an enormous Wall Street firm learns that it has massively underestimated its risk and then schemes to transfer that risk to their clients.  An all-star cast led by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons and a script by first-time director J.C. Chandor keeps this specific enough to be real and timely but the dynamics are universal.

9. “Moneyball” Brad Pitt is brilliant as Billy Beane, who turned around the Oakland A’s and transformed baseball by using the team’s scarce resources to buy wins, not players.

10.  “The Adjustment Bureau”/”Source Code” We were lucky to have two smart and very romantic thrillers this year, with Matt Damon as a politician drawn to a dancer despite the best efforts of mysterious men in hats who “adjust” circumstances and Jake Gyllenhaal as a military officer sent back in time to catch a bomber.  

Runners-up: “Tree of Life,” “The Descendants,” “The Help,” “50/50,” “The Muppets,” “The Other F Word,” “Into the Abyss,” “Rango,” “Drive,” “Cedar Rapids,” “Hanna,” “We Bought a Zoo,” “Jane Eyre,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Bridesmaids,” “Another Earth”

Coming soon….the top 10 family films of the year and my Hall of Shame.  Stay tuned.

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On DVD This Week

Posted on June 20, 2011 at 7:45 am

DVD pick of the week: The Adjustment Bureau is thought-provoking, exciting, and swooningly romantic. Writer/director George Nolfi takes on the biggest questions of all — faith and doubt, fate and free will, God, love, the meaning of existence — with an absorbing story about who we are and why we do what we do.  I have a copy to give away, so send me an email at with “Adjustment Bureau” in the subject line, and don’t forget your address.

Also out this week:

Cedar Rapids “Hangover’s” Ed Helms stars as a small town insurance guy who goes to the title “big city” for an industry convention and suffers some hilarious misadventures in this very adult comedy.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Roderick Rules The second in the series based on the wildly popular book for grade and middle-schoolers has our hapless heroes facing the humiliations of middle school.

“Happythankyoumoreplease” is a smart and endearing indie from writer/director Josh Radnor of television’s “How I Met Your Mother.”
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The Adjustment Bureau

Posted on March 3, 2011 at 5:54 pm

The first great movie of 2011 is thought-provoking, exciting, and swooningly romantic. Writer/director George Nolfi takes on the biggest questions of all — faith and doubt, fate and free will, God, love, the meaning of existence — with an absorbing story about who we are and why we do what we do.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a popular politician with a bad habit of losing control that has just cost him an election. As he gets ready to deliver a safe and appropriate concession speech, he has a brief meeting with a young woman and feels an immediate connection. And then he gives the concession speech and it is frank and outspoken and of course, appealing to the voters who find his candor refreshing. His political prospects are bright again, but he can’t stop thinking about the girl.

We’re used to seeing people, especially people in power, surrounded by fixers, arrangers, smoothers, tweakers — publicists, managers, agents, advisers, lawyers. David has those, including his best friend/campaign manager. But there is something different going on. There are men in hats giving each other odd directions with a strangely compelling sense of urgency, as though they are organizing a rocket launch. But why would someone be deployed to spill coffee on David’s shirt?

To keep him off a bus, for one reason (though the deeper reason will not be revealed for a while). But the coffee isn’t spilled in time. He gets on the bus. And the girl from election night is there. Her name is Elise (Emily Blunt). She is a dancer. And David is besotted with her.

The men in hats are from an Adjustment Bureau. They have enormous power and a secret system of doorways that allow them to bypass miles in a few steps. The hat men step out of the doorways like a less cheery version of the minions who keep things running smoothly at Disney World.

The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t want David and Elise to be together, and they are acting on the highest authority. But even that authority cannot stop the most powerful force in the universe.

A knockout cast and imaginative visuals provide a sumptuous setting for the romance. Anthony Mackie, moving with the graceful economy of a cheetah, is the Adjuster who has come to care for his charge. Other Adjusters include “Mad Men’s” John Slattery as a harried bureaucrat and Terence Stamp as the ruthless enforcer brought in when all else has failed. Damon makes David intelligent, brave, sensitive, vulnerable, curious, and great-hearted, and Blunt makes Elise everything a man like that would be willing to risk it all for. There are a few surprising rough edges for such a well-crafted story. Elise’s reason for being in the men’s room where she meets David for the first time is oddly off-putting, a loose end that is never explained. And a story David tells about his political inspiration would have to have occurred about 15 years before he was born, unless he is the youngest-looking baby boomer in history. But what does work in this movie works exceptionally well, a bracing engagement with the reason for everything that gives us a good reason to remember this movie for a long time.


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Interview: George Nolfi of ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

Posted on March 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

“The Adjustment Bureau” is the first great film of 2011, a big and hugely entertaining film that takes on big ideas — love, free will, destiny, God, and the meaning of life. I was lucky enough to speak with writer and first-time director George Nolfi about being inspired by a short story from Philip K. Dick.adjustment-bureau-poster-3.jpg
The movie is very different from “Adjustment Team,” the original story by Philip K. Dick. How did you approach adapting it for the screen?
The short story is just that, short. And it has a character at the center of it who is explicitly an everyman and so there isn’t much of a character to play there. It was going to need some adaptation one way or another. I was interested in a different thing than Philip K. Dick was. The story can be read from one angle was “Is this real or is this not real?” I wanted it to be — this thing happens and it spins the guy’s whole life on its head and all of his conceptions about the laws of physics and the universe are turned upside down. And he has to accept it because the evidence is just so overwhelming. What does that do to a person?
When my producing partner brought me the short story, I thought, what a great conception for a movie, the idea that fate is a group of people subtly pushing you back on plan. He also said, “You could do this as a love story. Your lead falls in love for the first time in his life and the adjuster comes along and says, ‘Sorry, there’s been a mistake. You weren’t even supposed to meet her.'” For whatever reason, my reaction to that was, “I think I know how to write that.” I didn’t know what I was going to put in the script but I thought the blending of genres would be fascinating and it would get me into territories of these much larger questions that every great system of thought — philosophical, literary, science-fiction, theological — this story would allow me to get there. There are not many stories that make big movies that take you to those questions.
It is unusual for a big-time movie with big-time movies stars to take on questions of life and fate and meaning and free will. I love the fact that it wasn’t focus-grouped away from engaging on those issues.
I optioned the rights and controlled them for six or seven years. I gave the script to Matt Damon and got some thoughts from him about his character. Neither of us thought his character was fully developed yet. I rewrote it to give his character more layers and more interesting things for him to play. And he said yes and we got it financed outside the studio system, from a group called MRC. When we then went to the studios we were able to say, “We have this movie and we have this movie star” and give them a fully-formed movie, so you don’t have this automatic development process where it’s nobody’s fault but things tend to get homogenized.
And Universal was really supportive, right from the beginning. They were on board with the notion of trying something that was really reaching. They were just like — let’s go for it. They thought people would leave the theater feeling satisfied even though we were blending genres. I had no interference while I was making the movie. In post-production they had just a few thoughts which in the Hollywood scheme of things would be considered minuscule. They had thoughts about the music but that was temp music anyway. I didn’t think the original ending worked and they agreed. So it was good people we were in business with and we were all pulling the same way. They were completely supportive of what we were trying to do, and so was Matt.
As a screenwriter, you’ve worked with directors but this is the first time you have directed. What did you learn from the directors you’ve observed?
I was on the set for all the movies I am credited on. And for “Oceans 12,” I knew I was basically going to be there the whole time. I said to Steven Soderbergh, “I’m interested in being director, are you cool with my occasionally ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?” And he was extremely gracious to explain some of his thought processes about why he was choosing certain shots and so on. But the single biggest piece of advice he gave me that really stuck with me was, “In a perfect world you want to choose your shots and assemble to the movie so that the sound could go out and people could still follow the story.” That’s telling a story through pictures.
Clearly you listened to him! For a writer turned director, this is a very visual film. The effects are very significant and essential to the narrative.
As a writer making the leap to directing the first time, it was very important to me to make a film that was visually significant, to use visuals and music and sound as well as the performances of the cast to tell the story — those are the things you don’t have as a writer. I really wanted to do visual story-telling. I write scripts that are very visual but you can’t know until you try it whether it would come easily to me as a director, but I loved it.
I liked the idea that the Adjusters could do a lot of things but in a way the humans adjusted their options, too. They were nudging each other.
Thematically, I had this idea that the Chairman was limiting the Bureau in all kinds of different ways. That’s too many ripples so you have to go to a higher authority. Or you can’t go through that door unless you are wearing a hat. Or it’s raining out and water kind of blocks our ability. Those are foreshadowing the way that the Chairman will turn out to be supportive of free will.
And of love! It’s a very romantic movie.
I hope so! I hope you experienced it that way. I think it is.
And it is very spiritual, as well.
I wasn’t trying to make a religious film per se, but the most comprehensive attempts to make sense of the world are theological. In terms of fate and free will, that’s the oldest question human beings struggle with. It’s there in Gilgamesh and ancient Greece. Is it fate or do we have choices? There’s a reason for that. Human beings are questioning animals and we want to understand our existence.
Looked at in much less grand terms, most people have some sense that the person they turned out to be, the job they have, their moral code, their interests, their religion, were shaped by what country they were born in, what neighborhood they were born into, their family, their friends, their schools, their chance encounters have put them on a path. Even things considered more deeply personal choices like who your spouse is — you were introduced by friends or met at a wedding or you had mutual interests or whatever it is. So we have this sense that the course of our life is shaped by outside forces, whether a divine hand or your surrounding influences. But we also experience our lives as a series of choices. No religion has successfully answered that. We did an inter-faith screening with an audience of followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and we had a discussion with experts in all all three. They discussed faith and free will and pointed out to the audience that the importance of free will was found in all of them. They have to, in order to make sense of existence.

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